Frank Wills, an American security guard of African lineage, caught a professional ring of thieves. The action ultimately forced the resignation of a sitting United States President, and may have shortened an already prolonged war. He simply was doing his job with vigilance. He died at a young age in poverty.


Security Magazine asked Charles P. Howes, a regular contributor, to participate in My Turn. His piece follows and spotlights Frank Wills, a security officer who is more than a footnote in history. Howes is a former technical writer and corporate safety and security trainer who now works for one of the world’s largest security firms. He is also a freelance writer and adjunct instructor of technical communications. He lives in Green Bay, Wisc., and can be contacted at www.charleshowes.com

Security Magazine: Who is Frank Wills?

Howes: Frank Wills, an American security guard of African lineage, busted a professional ring of thieves, forced the resignation of a sitting United States President, and may have shortened an already prolonged war, simply by doing his job with vigilance.

On the night of June 17, 1972, Wills was making his rounds at the Watergate office building, home of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, in Washington, D.C, when he noticed a piece of electrical tape placed over the latch of one of the exit doors. At first, he did not think much of it, as patrons often jammed the door with chairs or stones, anything that would allow them to reenter the building through the same door as expediently as possible. He simply removed the tape and continued his rounds. However, Wills became suspicious on his next set of rounds when he noticed someone had replaced the tape. He immediately called the Washington, D.C. Police, an act that would begin the unraveling of one of the biggest political debacles in American history.

Security Magazine: What happened then?

Howes: Wills became an instant celebrity. Then the focus of both print and broadcast media, he tried in vain to use his newly found status to negotiate a raise or a few extra vacation days with his employer. Unable to do so, he quit his security job. According to the African American Registry (www.aaregistry.com), Wills tried to launch a public speaking career and, with the help of comedian-activist Dick Gregory, tried to work in public relations. For some reason it did not work out.

The Democratic National Convention and the Southern Christian Leadership both bestowed honors on Wills. He played himself in the Academy Award winning movie All the President’s Men, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account of Watergate. Certainly most men of modest means would envision success after receiving such attention. However, Frank crash-landed from his meteoric rise to fame.

Security Magazine: What were his challenges?

Howes: Like all of us, Frank Wills was not without his flaws. After his moment in the limelight, he found it difficult to hold a steady job, and he was convicted of shoplifting in 1983. Disillusionment can be a cancer to the soul.

In 1990 Wills returned home to South Carolina to care for his stroke victim mother, where they both subsisted off of her 450 dollar a month Social Security check and a few dollars he made doing odd jobs.

According to Media Take Out (www.mediatakeout.com), Wills said he was so destitute that when his mother died in 1993 he donated her body to science because he did not have the money to bury her.

By the year of 2000, others were still making millions of dollars in royalties on movies, books, and speaking engagements from the Watergate conflagration sparked by Frank Wills. Yet he lay alone ailing in his mother’s darkened house; darkened by his inability to pay the utility bill.

Security Magazine: How did things end?

Howes: Frank Wills died, penniless, in an Augusta, Ga., hospital of complications from a brain tumor on Sept. 27, 2000, at the age of 52. For most of his life, he lived in poverty.

Security Magazine: What is Wills’ legacy?

Howes: Frank Wills epitomizes the vigilance needed in every security professional. The memory of Frank Wills will live forever in American history. Awards given in a benefactor's name help to honor positive achievement. It would be nice if there were a Frank Wills Award given annually by the security industry for vigilance. We owe it, and the memory of Frank Wills deserves it.

SIDEBAR: Olympics Officer Unfairly Suspected in 1996 Bombing Dies

Richard Jewell, who was a security officer at Centennial Olympic Park during the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, died in his home in late August. He was called a hero when he discovered a backpack containing the nail bomb. He helped make people move away but the explosion killed one and injured more than a hundred people.

But within days of the bombing, a local newspaper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reported that Jewell was the focus on the investigation, quoting unnamed law enforcement officials.

No charges were ever made against Jewell. He sued numerous organizations and some settled with him, but not the newspaper originally reporting the allegation. That suit continues after his death. Two years ago, Eric Rudolph admitted his role in the Olympics bombing and is in a Colorado federal prison.